Is the government reformable?
‘when you discover that you are riding a dead horse,
the best strategy is to dismount’. Dakota Indians
Dakota Indians were famous for their elementary wisdom. They realized that appointing a commission to study a dead horse , arranging to visit other countries to see how others ride dead horses or reclassifying the dead horse as ‘living impaired’ would do little to make the dead horse become an engine of efficiency. Fifty eight years after the birth of Pakistan, seven years after taking over the government and just one year before the next elections, the President’s announcement to form a National Commission on Government Reforms could only suggest humour, naivete or post retirement pastime for an ex State Bank Governor. While one may have little to disagree on the dilapidated state of our governing organisations, we have no choice but to find ways and means to get the horse back on its feet and make it trot again.
There is a very wide spread perception in Pakistan that the services provided by state are inefficient, inadequate and sub-standard. They cater only to a handful of rich and influential, while making it a nightmare experience for ordinary citizens when undertaking even routine transactions such as paying bills, getting ID cards or driving licences, getting phone connections, reporting police cases, seeking justice from courts, paying taxes, or dealing with government departments for any information, task, certificate, permission, refund or approval. A letter recently published in a newspaper summarises the plight of one such citizen. It reads “ People are tired of running from pillar to post. The average person is exhausted by various government offices and courts where he is knocked about by one petty official after another. The day dawns and you leave home with a list of things you have to do, almost all of which involve a succession of uncaring and unresponsive outlets of the state machinery.”
Why are the government departments perceived to be so utterly inconsiderate and incompetent ? Very simple. They are designed to primarily serve their own interests, consider any work that they perform as a favour to mankind, and cause hardships to their captive customers wherever possible. As long as a government employee keeps on the right side of his superiors, his perks, promotions, postings, and post-retirement benefits are assured. When a number of Chief Executives of state run organisations were asked a very basic question. “ Who are your customers” , they all came out with the same reply – “Islamabad”. There is thus a complete lack of focus on who are their real customers. If one works to please some imaginary figure in Islamabad, instead of the real person standing in the queue, the quality of service rendered would obviously be highly compromised. The government services are designed on the basis of a fundamental premise – ‘consider every customer to be a thief, till he proves otherwise”. This approach necessitates designing systems and procedures with as many checkpoints, securities, counter-signatures, affidavits, photocopies, stamped papers, notary publics, and attestations as possible so as to prevent the possibility of a fraud. Interestingly it is this approach which lends itself not just to largest delays and frustration but also to the greatest number of frauds. The fake degrees of almost sixty parliamentarians, ministers and vice chancellors of some of our elite universities and millions avoiding bank deductions by signing stamped papers for belonging to a certain ‘zakat-exempt-fikah’, only prove that judicial affidavits can add to misery but not prevent fraud.
Besides disbanding the recently formed commission, there are three other actions which the government can take to begin reforming itself. One is simply a question of industrial engineering, time and motion study, and queuing analysis. Even a rudimentary application of these subjects can reduce many miles of misery for the poor customer. The senior government officials are completely isolated from the real rush of the maddening crowd. They sit happily sipping unending cups of imported tea and dealing with files instead of issues. The real systems are run by clerks on BOR (Build, Operate and Receive Benefits) basis. Some elements of confusion, concealment and silence are deliberately designed into each system. This allows the concerned managers to intervene and make decisions on case to case basis, depending upon the ‘other considerations’ of the case.
There is no way the government will get any better unless it makes a 180 degree turnaround from its existing ‘service-to-boss’ to a new ‘service-to-customer’ orientation. As a first step, the Government should get independent customer satisfaction surveys for each service providing department on its list. Next it should ask its departments to significantly reduce the customer waiting time, service time, forms filled, proofs demanded, visits required, and the number of windows of transactions to which a customer is exposed. Another basic step would be to say simply and exactly on a large board outside each office, how it provides its services, and to make sure that they are provided exactly in the same manner. The touts and the middlemen operating in front of each government office (visible to all except the concerned office) can be firmly dispensed with, as their backdoor interventions hinder the establishment of normal processes. The performance of a service providing organisation and the promotion of its bosses should be judged primarily on the customer satisfaction rating received by the organisation. This should be determined each year by independent professional bodies, and the benchmark continually raised every year. Those not making the minimum rating or not able to continually improve should be shown the door.
Every new Commission is a further burden on trees and tax payers. The latest one is likely to accomplish only as much as all the earlier commissions have done so far – something called next to nothing. It may be best to pick one or two departments and take a few months to completely transform them into world class service providing organisations. Let them act as role models for others. Then pick another two departments and do the same. By now you would have disproved the eternal Pakistani argument, “But this can not be done here in Pakistan”. It is only from this point onwards that there will be no looking back.